Dark Lady

I just finished reading “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.” To say that it was interesting would be an extreme understatement.

I picked up this book many moons ago to fulfill my biography craving. I like to read several books at a time in order to have a choice of books depending on my mood. So, when I'm having a rough time in lab I'll pick something light-hearted and chick-lit-like. If I'm in a pensive mood, I'll read something like “Godel, Escher, and Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid.” This also leaves room for reading about house buying (I'd recommend either “100 Questions Every First Time Home Buyer Should Ask by Ilyce Glink” or “The Idiots Guide to Home Buying” both were excellent) or reading about some random subject (lately I've been reading about Feminist Theology-- there may be a post for many of you to skip in the future!). However, this also means that when I'm having a tough time in the lab I do not want to read about someone else having a tough time in the lab. So, “Rosalind Franklin” has been on the back burner for these many months.

I do think that Brenda Maddox did an excellent job of giving a balanced portrayal of Rosalind Franklin (this should be taken with a large boulder of salt as I've only read webpages prior to this and these either read like fan mail or hate mail). In fact, I told Dr. Man that I don't know if I would have like Franklin if she had been a labmate of mine. Maddox portrayed Franklin as an intense, reserved woman in public. However, once she got to know people she was “kindness itself.” So, I probably would like her if I got to know her, but if we disagreed on something I'd have to be prepared to stand my ground and present a substantial argument. (The latter is something I admire-- even if I'm only ok at it.)

Maddox also did her best to destroy the “dour Rosy” that was prominent in James Watson's book “The Double Helix.” As it turns out Franklin was a smart dresser who was rather pretty. She was very animated and was brilliant (as her doctoral students, Raymond Gosling and Ken Holmes, pointed out). Additionally, “The Double Helix” portrays the relationship between “Rosy” and Watson and Crick as always being a strained one. This, however, is untrue. When, Franklin was later working on TMV, she and Watson openly collaborated (as Watson had previously did tremendous work on TMV). Additionally, Franklin and the Cricks became good friends. So much so that when she was recovering from surgery (to remove tumors in her abdomen) the Cricks invited Franklin to convalesce at their home. This, to me, may have been an even greater betrayal to Franklin's memory than the unethical dealings in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Now, on the crux of the matter, Maddox did an excellent job trying to untangle the discovery of the structure of DNA. She maintains that there was no “physical stealing of data.” That is no one snuck into Franklin's office late at night and stole material. However, without her data Watson and Crick would not have figured out the structure of DNA. Maddox writes that Gosling, Franklin's graduate student, shared his data with Wilkins (who was Gosling's co-advisor). Wilkins, in turn, showed the X-ray picture to Watson and told him everything that Franklin had discussed with Wilkins. Maddox writes that this out-pouring of data to Watson was not intentional on Wilkins part, it came out in the course of Wilkins complaining about Franklin. However, Watson and Crick did make the final leap to the actual structure of DNA. It is unfair to say that Franklin had “no idea what her data meant.” Franklin had more than a good idea (as she was the one who determined that the phosphates had to be on the outside, the diameter of the double helix, the length of one turn, the space groups, and the two forms of DNA- A and B) of what her data meant. She was unwilling, though, to present a model that was not based entirely on experimental evidence. In fact without her experimental evidence backing up Watson and Crick's model, the model would have just been an interesting thought experiment.

The real under-handedness came about with the attribution of credit to said model. Neither Watson, Crick, or Wilkins admitted, within Franklin's lifetime, that without Franklin's data they would not have been able to build such a model. Additionally, none of them told Franklin that they were using her data to determine the structure of DNA, while they knew full well that she was working on the same project. She was scooped by a member of her own lab! So, while there was no sneaking about in the cover of night, there was still unethical behavior involved.

It is sad, though, that Franklin's legacy is built upon this incident. She was a pioneer in X-ray crystallography, taking better X-ray pictures than were previously seen. She was a brilliant experimentalist who was able to look at a problem and figure out the most elegant solution. After her time at King's she went to Birkbeck where she put together a world-renowned plant virology lab. Her co-worker, Aaron Klug, won the Nobel Prize for their work. She was invited many times on a lecture tour in the United States. Additionally, the NIH gave her funding to continue her work on plant viruses. She determined the location of the RNA inside the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (it fits around into the “knobs” in the protein). She published thirty-seven scientific papers, her model of TMV was exhibited in the Brussels World Fair, and was just an excellent Scientist.